Sunday, November 23, 2008

If You Can Always Be with the One You Love, No Need to Love the One You’re With

Be here now. Stop and smell the roses. Carpe diem. In some circles, enlightenment means achieving such intense focus on the present moment that the rest or the world fades completely away. Living well is as simple as being able to slow down enough to be aware of all of the mundane wonders that surround each of us. At some level, we all know this is true. It feels good just to relax and enjoy, even if just for a brief moment. And that's why, whatever your race, creed, color or religion, you want to do something horrible to that asshole on the cell phone who just cut in front of you in line at Starbucks.

The brilliance of, and the problem with, technology is its power to transport us, real-time, to another world and to connect us with the exact people we want to be connected with. A new kind of global provincialism seems to be in the works.

When, late at night, I get done drafting an agreement, with a few keystrokes, I can zap my work off from my lonely office in Boston to the lonely office of the one person in the universe (poor bastard) who needs to see it, even if the person in lonely office #2 is five thousand miles away. Geography be damned. With the touch of one auto-dial cell phone button, I can transport myself out of my physical surroundings and whisper sweet Bluetooth nothings in my honey’s ear, no matter where she is. If you know a person's digital coordinates, you can communicate from almost any spot on the face of the earth. But the same technology also makes it easier than ever before to be absolutely, 100% oblivious to the person who’s been sitting next to you on the bus every morning of your working life, or to some amazing moment unfolding right in front of your eyes. Precision in communication comes at the expense of randomness, and randomness is a critical ingredient in making human beings human.

The Internet often gets billed as a revolutionary medium for sharing thoughts. It has become vastly easier for any given person to upload his thoughts to the cyber-marketplace of ideas. So, in theory, the universe of human discourse should be broader and richer than ever. But, because you have to point your browser to one ultra-specific point in the virtual universe, it may be that the Internet has become, instead of the virtual commons where ideas are shared and debated, just a conduit for matching like-minded people up with one another. It’s easier to ignore different views, or to never even encounter them in the first place.

Self-segregation is a natural human tendency. We like to be around people who are like us. If you turn and look at the person sitting to your left in the board room, in the prison cafeteria, at your neighborhood Applebee’s, chances are he’s wearing the same brand of loafers (exception for prison cafeteria) and is appalled by the same political action group as you are. As rigid as our daily routines tend to be, there is still at least some chance on any given day that we’ll bump into a random person, or have to talk to somebody for some reason we hadn’t intended. That’s not the case on-line. What’s the cyber equivalent of, “you’re not gonna believe what happened to me this afternoon.”?

And what about living in the moment? Worrying too much about documenting the moment and sharing the moment can eliminate the moment altogether. Old Faithful is by far the most visited site in Yellowstone. It’s a crowded attraction, but still impressive. When I saw Old Faithful erupt for the first time, half of the crowd around me, it seemed, was witnessing this wonder of nature through a three inch LCD screen, and the other half was recounting it to their cousins in Cleveland. How was the experience stored in their minds? Did they really have the experience at all? And what about the group bond of witnessing something extraordinary together? Were we really together? Or were they, despite standing next to me, really more present in some nether world, having some kind of parallel experience with whoever was at the receiving end of the microwaves? I’ve heard similar stories about runners in marathons. Nice that aunt Betty can get the mile by mile update, but the rest of the runners – the proud, excited group that should all be in this together – aren’t part of the picture any more. You don’t have to say it out loud when talking on a cell phone, but everyone standing next to you understands the message anyway – “there is someone more important than you out there that I want to share this experience with.”

So what do we do about all this? There’s nothing wrong with being a Luddite, except that it’s futile approximately 100% of the time. Technological progression is almost a force of nature, like gravity, or the Coriolis effect. It just is. How can we rearrange the world so that people have to interact with people who are different than they are? Outside of a fraternity, forced kidnapping is generally not an option. Other than during jury duty (i.e. judge, bailiff with gun), there is almost no-place in the first world where you can ask a person to turn off his cell phone without being ridiculed or beaten. People of all walks of life are forced to comingle at the DMV. But everyone there is furious. So that may not be the best place to showcase the loveliness of humanity. War veterans seem to have nice stories about the different kinds of folks they met in foxholes, gunning down foreigners and eating worms together. Not sure we want to start another war just on that account, though. And that never included grad students, the rich, anyone with connections or, well, OK, forget it, bad example.

I think we may have to take a more voluntary approach. Maybe some public service announcements: “Does your girlfriend really, really need to know at this EXACT SECOND that you just ran into a guy you worked with three jobs ago?” Or “If you are about to call someone to tell them that you will be somewhere in ten minutes, they will find out on their own in ten minutes.” Or maybe some corporate incentives: 5% off your next latte if you can tell us the first name of one of your baristas after less than five hundred visits to this location. Maybe our appliances should be designed to mix it up a little. Internet browsers should have to have built in algorithms that direct you sites you don’t want. One time in ten, when you search for chihuahuas, you should be directed to a site for people who think chihuahuas are the most horrible breed of dog on earth. When you tune into Terry Gross, your radio should occasionally give you Rush Limbaugh. Cell phones should dial wrong numbers. GPSs should get you lost.

In the end, nobody can force us to hang up and focus on the world around us. We’ve each got to figure out how to get some kind of fly in our own uber-programmed ointment of technological efficiency. So, unless you’re the first one at the scene of a twelve school bus pile-up or you’ve fallen down a well, consider giving the cell phone a rest and join us back here on earth. Or at least be aware that the guy eyeballing you maliciously from across the room is thinking about dumping a hot cappuccino in your lap.

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